I’m reading Endurance, Alfred Lansing’s gripping tale of Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated 1914 Antarctic expedition. Shackleton’s family motto was Fortitudine vincimus, “by endurance we conquer”. So, he named his ship the Endurance. The objective was to cross the entire continent on foot and by dog sled. They never landed in Antarctica and the ship did not endure. Instead this is the story of twenty eight men’s two year experience of endless cold and frequent misery on the ice and water of the Antarctic Ocean.
The expedition left Buenos Aires on October 26, 1914, then South Georgia Island on December 5, expecting to land in Antarctica by the end of December. Instead on January 25, 1915 the Endurance became stuck in pack ice. They could only wait helplessly for release while the endless ice pack moved slowly across the Wedell Sea. Nine months later, as the ship was being crushed by the ice pack, they abandoned ship. They lived in makeshift tents, where they were permanently cold and frequently wet. On a good day, the temperature rose to around minus 20 celsius. Their plan changed. Now they hoped the moving ice would take them close to a group of uninhabitable islands where they would land in life boats. From there they would need to cross 800 miles of open ocean to return to South Georgia Island. They all knew that survival would take an incredible amount of luck.
After a month of living in the cold and wet in the tents, with no end in sight, first officer Lionel Greenstreet spent several days scraping and curing a piece of sealskin to resole his boots. He took a break from his task to write in his diary: “One of the finest days we have ever had… a pleasure to be alive.”
Greenstreet’s attitude was not unusual. Several of the men kept diaries, and they were all capable of positive feelings and even some humor in spite of their discomfort and desperate situation. Later on, when conditions got unimaginably worse, there were some frayed nerves and signs of madness. But even then rationality and grim determination prevailed.
We can find similar stories of the triumph of the human spirit from Anne Frank, Victor Frankl, James Stockdale or Nelson Mandela, to name a few. One normal reaction is to feel that one’s own trials are trivial by comparison. Or we might be moved to gratitude for our relative good fortune. Admiration for heroes and gratitude for our blessings are all very well and good. But such feel-good moments are just a big cop out, if they don’t lead to action. It’s like a Sunday morning church service — everybody feels virtuous for sitting there listening to a sermon. Then they go off and resume their usual anxious lives.
What am I suggesting? How about each of us does some soul-searching to identify his or her own Antarctica — whatever situation big or small in our life that invites us to step outside our comfort zone and draw upon the best of ourselves. The guys on Shackleton’s expedition discovered strengths they didn’t know they had and were changed for the better through that experience. Suffering can be beneficial if it is embraced boldly!
But what if you don’t have an Antarctica? What if your life is comfortably chill, as opposed to bitterly cold? I humbly suggest it might be time to go find something to stretch yourself! Since caution is a generally defensive posture, I’m also suggesting that lowering your defenses and becoming a bit more giving (whatever that means for you) could be part of the package.
I want to get back to the Endurance. It was said to be the finest wooden vessel ever built — the oak keel was seven feet deep, the sides were over 18 inches thick, the hull was sheathed in greenheart, a wood heavier than iron — if any ship could resist the ice pack, the Endurance could. A few million tons of ice were not impressed — they crushed it like matchsticks. My point? Shackleton and his crew set out to tackle the challenge of crossing Antarctica, but instead they were faced with the greater challenge of surviving the ice pack. Instead of crumbling in defeat before the Universe’s change of plans, they embraced reality and came out winners.